Gas Shortages as a Common Pool Resource Problem

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San Antonio is currently out of gas.  At this point something like 75% of all gas stations in town are out of fuel.  Fears that Hurricane Harvey would disrupt the refinement and shipping of gasoline combined with the travel demands of labor day weekend led people to start hoarding gasoline and filling up their vehicles when they didn’t need to.  Texas state officials have promised that there is no actual gas shortage but the panicked pursuit of gas by the populace has created the shortage everyone was worried about.

This gas shortage is an example of a common pool resource problem.  A common pool resource is a good that is non-excludable (you can’t keep people from enjoying it) and rivalrous (one person’s enjoyment of the good takes away from another enjoyment).  Technically gasoline is a private good (one that is excludable and rivalrous) because it costs money to  buy (or consume) so people can be excluded by price.  However since gasoline is so heavily subsidized its not a stretch in this case to treat it as a common pool resource.  One way to solve this gas shortage would be to actually treat gasoline as a private good or, in other words, allow the price to rise to reflect current supply vs. demand.  This would be basically price gouging and even the most libertarian of Texans would disapprove.  Another option would be for the state of Texas to mandate restrictions on how much gas can be sold but since this is Texas that won’t happen either.  So if neither the market nor the state can or will solve this problem who can?  There is a third way and that is the community can manage the problem itself.  Elinor Ostrom, Political Scientists and Nobel Prize winner, studied how communities can manage their common pool resources and came up with eight principles for stable common pool resource management:

1.Define clear group boundaries

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities

5. Develop a system, carried out by community member, for monitoring member’s behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system

The new mayor of San Antonio has taken to social media to appeal to people’s better natures and not hoard gas or fill up more than they need.

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This approach seems to be in line with point #8 – putting responsibility for managing the problem with individuals hoping they refrain from cheating because of their own virtue and the moral shaming that may come from their fellow community members if they do cheat.  The mayor’s most recent post seems to suggest his patience is growing short as he implicitly threatens that he would like to mandate restrictions on the purchase of gas if he could

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We’ll see how long it takes for the gas supply to stabilize in San Antonio but at this point it seems that many members of the community are failing to adhere to the Mayor’s admonition to be a good neighbor to fill up only when necessary and not hoard gas.  In the grand scheme of things this wouldn’t be a problem if our entire socio-economic system wasn’t dependent on fossil fuels but that is a post for another day.  Also if the only damage San Antonio received from Hurricane Harvey was a self-generated gas shortage then we are obviously very lucky.

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